Director Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece “The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” a Palme d’Or winner from 1978, remains today a poignant depiction of poverty in film, despite its temporal setting of 1898. Interestingly, viewers of the film sometimes disagree in their interpretations of the main characters’ poverty: some see it as a positive, some as a negative and some as a little of both.
“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” portrays peasant life on a farmstead in Lombardy, a northern region of Italy. The peasants’ life can be summarized, as one critic has said, as: “Plant. Cultivate. Harvest. Eat. Drink. Sleep.” This simple lifestyle tends to charm viewers who discover a kind of nobility in the rural rhythms of peasant life.
However, one cannot ignore the harsh realities of that life, which are not a focus of the film but are essential parts nonetheless.
In his review of Olmi’s film, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “We grow devout in the presence of poverty, particularly when it is not our own.” His point is that people who don’t live in poverty often idealize it when they see it, especially the agrarian poverty depicted so vividly in the film. Olmi does encourage viewers to admire peasant life at times, but ever present in his movie are the oppressive realities of nature that make an idealization of poverty impossible.
Those realities create “natural drama” in a film that occasionally borders on documentary. In one scene, a family finds their cow has become sick and call a veterinarian. The veterinarian advises them to butcher the cow for the few coins it will afford them before the animal dies of natural causes. The family’s matriarch responds, “Not this too, you can see what condition we’re in. We don’t have enough to live.”
The film swings between the stark desperation of these moments and the positivity of other scenes that depict life’s fundamental joys.
Olmi, a son of peasants, perhaps reveals his own mild bias toward the simple pleasures of peasant life from time to time. This seems especially evident during a scene in which three families do nothing but sing and shuck corn together. The images, photographed at eye-level and bathed in a soft yellow light, exude only warmth and positivity—a testament to humankind’s ability to find joy even in harsh circumstances.
But Olmi’s film goes on to show that the hardships of the peasant’s poverty cannot be suppressed for long. Specifically, he blames the social system in northern Italy for exacerbating those hardships. The message is universal, though, for social systems the world over are actively keeping populations in poverty.
One must recognize the ways in which the film is universal, or else the characters’ poverty will get cast aside as a historical phenomenon only. Today, 1.2 billion people live with $1.25 or less a day in income and are deprived of healthcare and education, as the peasants in Olmi’s film were.
For this reason, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is still an effective way to learn about the struggles of the modern poor through the vicarious experience of fiction.
– Ryan Yanke